by Nina Simon
When I was getting ready to query agents for my debut novel, I focused on making my first chapter the best I could. Countless craft books, podcasts, and essays reinforced how essential it is to make your first pages shine. (Here’s a terrific one from Hank Phillippi Ryan on that very topic.)
So I polished my prose. I put my main character in a pickle from the very first line. The result was a dynamite first chapter, one that helped me land an agent and eventually, a publisher.
But that particular first chapter? No. It’s no longer the first thing you’ll read when you open my book.
There was a problem with that first chapter. I wasn’t fulfilling the implicit promise I’d made to readers when I sent out to write a mystery.
Every reader comes into a genre novel with certain expectations.
If it’s a rom-com, readers expect fizzy romance. If it’s a thriller, readers expect suspense. If it’s a murder mystery, readers expect crime. They may not expect these elements to happen right away. There doesn’t need to be a kiss or a killer on page one. But the book has to feel like it is heading in that direction. That is the promise the writer is making. The tone, pace, and energy have to match readers’ expectations, reassuring them that they have picked up the kind of book they’ll love. This is especially true in the age of Kindle, when many readers (including me) choose books based on the first-page samples provided.
That first chapter of my novel? It didn’t feel like a mystery.
The way I wrote it, in chapter one, the main character, Lana Rubicon, got diagnosed with cancer and left her fast-paced life in LA to seek treatment. Lana was in crisis, but her crisis was medical, not criminal. It wasn’t until chapter two when, laid up in her daughter’s small town, Lana saw something suspicious and started investigating.
From a plot perspective, it wasn’t “too late” for the investigation to start in chapter two. I had to establish what set Lana on her journey to solving crime. But from a tonal perspective, I’d screwed up.
The first chapter felt like women’s fiction, not a mystery. It didn’t take place in the setting of the mystery. And it only involved one of the three Rubicon women who would solve the crime. It would have been easy to read my first chapter and assume it was a story about a bossy lady with cancer and not a mystery at all.
How do you solve this problem? In my case, my editor suggested adding a prologue. I tried writing a flash-forward to the murder, but that made it feel more like a thriller than a traditional detective story.
Instead, I wrote a short prologue that introduced all three main characters in the setting where the murders would take place. Nothing criminal happens in this prologue. Very little happens at all. But—crucially— it establishes a mysterious, murder-y tone from the very first line.
Here’s how it starts: “Beth knew she couldn’t leave for work until she dealt with the dead body on the beach.”
It goes on to tell the simple story of Beth Rubicon and her daughter Jack, working together to bury a harbor seal that had washed up below their home in a coastal marsh. Very little happens in this prologue, but the language screams mystery. I was deliberate with my word choice, keeping the tone spooky. I fixated on the seal carcass, the scavenging vultures, even Beth’s shovel. I introduced Lana, Beth’s mother, as someone distant and vaguely menacing. And I ended on a foreboding note. The resulting prologue gives readers confidence that this is indeed a murder mystery, with sinister crimes to come.
The irony is that adding this prologue means it actually takes longer to get to the dead body at the center of my novel. But that’s okay. Readers are more likely to stay with the story—including through the cancer diagnosis detour—because I established the promise of mystery from page one.
The concept of the genre promise applies to all genre projects. Think of it like establishing the musical theme for a TV show, or the overture to a symphony. If you’re writing a zany romp, it should feel fun from page one, even if your character starts off in a terrible slump. If you’re writing a spy thriller, it has to put readers on edge right away, even if the trap is not yet set.
Your book should feel like itself from page one.
How are you using your first pages to fulfill your genre promise? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page.
Nina Simon writes crime stories about strong women. A former NASA engineer, slam poet, and museum director, Nina lives with her family in an off-grid community in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Mother-Daughter Murder Night is her first novel.
Learn more about Nina on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: @ninaksimon.